Keep Your (or one's) Ear to the Ground

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Have one's ear to the ground
Keep an ear to the ground

Meaning of Idiom 'Keep Your Ear to the Ground'

To keep your ear to the ground means to be observant and to pay attention to what is going on around you; to listen to rumors and other discussions so as to be aware of what is happening or what is going to happen; to be well-informed. 1,2,3


"To be a good reporter, you have to learn to keep your ear to the ground."

"McKay says that he's a successful defense lawyer because he keeps his ear to the ground. To most people, however, he's just an ambulance chaser."


The idiom alludes to detecting the approach of distant horses by putting your ear to the ground to listen for their hoofbeats. 2

For example, in 1841, in A General Introduction to the Natural History of Mammiferous Animals, William Charles Linnaeus Martin writes about the amazing sensory prowess of the Calmucks:

"On their journeys and military expeditions, they often smell out a fire, or a camp, and thus procure quarters for the night, or obtain booty. Many of them can tell, by smelling at the hole of a fox, or other animal, whether the creator be there or not. By lying flat, and putting their ear to the ground, they can catch, at a great distance, the noise of horses, of a flock, or of a single strayed animal…"

This passage is probably exaggerated and simply indicates that the idea of listening for approaching horse-hoofs was well-known. The same ability was attributed to Native American tribes, Arabs, and many others. It is doubtful that the hoofbeats of a small group of horses or a single animal could be heard through the ground from miles away, but it probably is true that the tramping of large herds of animals, such as American Buffalo, could be heard in this way. The practice was known enough that it passed into metaphorical usage by the late-1800's.

1. Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill's American Idioms Dictionary. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.
2. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
3. Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.

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